Dave Brubeck

Years ago, living briefly in Tokyo, & wandering through the Nakano campus of “Todai,” hungry in mid-afternoon, we discovered an immense cafeteria. It consisted of long, very narrow benches — hundreds of them. Not one had a person sitting at it. The cafeteria line was open, however, & the myriad serving stations staffed. By our customary barbarous method of pointing & grunting, we selected a meal, & took a seat half way down this rink of benches, over by a wall where a juke box had started playing — by a kind of spontaneous combustion — Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” This was followed by the rest of the Time Out album.

A young lady, spied in the distance, became the cafeteria’s second customer. We were chuffed to see her approaching our section, given the choice of so many others; then startled when she set down her tray brazenly opposite our own.

“Do you like hot jazz, or cold?” she asked.

We had already discovered, in bookstores, how forward Japanese girls could be. This, anyway, after several years on the Asian mainland, where no respectable woman, married or unmarried, would be caught dead alone in the company of a “European” male. But Japan was rich, like Europe. This seems to do things to people. And a Japanese girl who wants to practise her English, knows no shame.

This was precisely what the young lady intended. Having answered her question with a question of our own (“What do you mean?”), we found that her English did perhaps need some practice; but her knowledge of jazz was encyclopaedic. Too, that her preference was for “cold jazz,” of just the kind that was playing.

A very pretty girl, as we recall. … And, since gentle reader may be wondering: “Warm jazz plays red notes, cool jazz plays blue notes, & cold jazz plays purple notes with white edges.” Brubeck, we were given to understand, plays all the notes; but yes, purple, edging sharply to a very pale blue.


We knew then, as we know today, nothing about music. But let us add, we know what we like. For as long as we can remember we have been attracted to Brubeck (our papa had his records), through all his phases to his latest choral odes (“Christmas Hymn” & “The Peace of Wild Things”). For he was one of those glorious artists who go on working to the end, in Brubeck’s case composing into his nineties & no doubt up to the moment when “his number was called” — in 9/8 signature, if we know anything about God.

That was yesterday morning. David Warren Brubeck, to give his full name, was not nearly finished as a composer. His later work, “progressively” (hate that word) more orchestral & choral & explicitly religious, seems as all his previous work to be leading somewhere, to something even better. As the later Bach, he is as much exploring as composing. He has discovered some sublime things no one ever heard before, because they are not of this world.

For reasons of pure sentiment we are playing “Brandenburg Gate Revisited” just now, past midnight up here in the High Doganate. It is the version he scored for the full London Symphony; a live recording from a decade ago, led by Brubeck himself on piano, with a couple of his six talented sons also in the foreground (Matthew on cello & Dan on percussion we think; no album notes). Curiously, it is rather warm. There are pink notes in it, & violet, & some yellow-orange at the end. There is a passage on this track, where string replies exquisitely to keyboard, that required the whole preceding nine minutes to set up. And it is utterly timeless, beyond era or style. Brubeck is full of moments like that, in the course of something between storytelling & a lively sermon, expressed in pure musical phrase; & presented entirely without presumption.

The man was, rather as other jazz greats yet more so, free of posturing. That is, he was not full of himself; he was only full of music. There is the modest serenity of a man about his job. In Brubeck, in Duke Ellington, in the voice of Ella Fitzgerald or the fingers of Art Tatum, we have to our mind audible “glimpses” of what our civilization might have been: of a music that is at once in thick with tradition, & shock new; of high classical precision, yet accessible to all.

In Brubeck particularly, we hear a mind consciously returning upon that euphonic order, in which large, even prophetic things can be said — whether by the cantor of a single melodic line, or polyphonically, & even polyrhythmically. And not for passive entertainment, for as the Psalmist we must dance. Not “easy listening” but the full reply. (The Mass was never confined to words & music, incidentally; being in its nature, too, a solemn dance at the meeting of worlds.)

He was born on a California ranch, of an English mother herself a concert pianist, so that he started piano before he was born. He followed his elder brothers into music, & his sons followed him. In this broad world he was assimilating influences all his life, & through his travels everywhere; but assimilating always to some ineffaceable core. His sound is never mistakable, & like Bach’s, unified beginning to end. (He was often in conversation with Bach.)

Raised as a “nothing” in denominational terms, in 1980 he walked into a Catholic church and simply “signed up.” He denied having converted, for he hadn’t converted from anything. Decades before he had been assembling oratorios & cantatas on frankly Biblical themes, & when he tried to explain his religious position it was too simple for anyone to understand. He’d been in the war — World War II — & he’d seen things there that were “against the Ten Commandments.” You can’t get simpler than that. He didn’t judge people, & so hung out with a wild variety; surely bringing out the best in each.

And he was so American. One wants to weep sometimes at how great Americans can be.